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She couldn't face going home tonight. Dr. Emma Shields scribbled notes on the last patient's case file before she set it on top of the stack to be sorted by her office staff. She peered at the brass clock on the wall and blinked. Was it really that late? No wonder she was bleary-eyed. She sighed and returned her attention to her work. Anything to delay going to her lonely apartment.
A short knock sounded on the open door.
"Come in," she called without looking up.
"You plan on staying here all night?"
Emma lifted her head. As she removed her reading glasses and dangled them from her fingers, she sat back in her comfy executive chair.
Too comfy. She stifled a yawn.
Sonja, her head nurse, stood in the doorway, prim and proper in her whites with red stars stamped on her smock. Sonja smoothed her graying hair and showed a crinkly smile.
"Nope, I'm about finished," Emma replied. "What's keeping you here so late?"
"I got those pathology reports you requested from Dr. Tanner and sorted them for tomorrow. You've already got your messages, so I think I'll call it a night."
"Good night." Emma reached for another pile of paperwork stacked neatly on her desk.
Tidy and in control. That's what her receptionist called her. Emma couldn't help that she liked order. She'd had enough chaos in her life to last an eternity.
Sonja turned to leave, but paused. "Oh, before I forget, Mr. Williams called again."
"Mr. Williams?" Emma shook her groggy head.
"He has the little girl with a brain tumor. He's called twice this week. He's asked if we'll work with his doctors at the University of California Hospital in SanFrancisco, to administer her chemotherapy protocol."
"And did you tell him we deal only in adult oncology?"
"Yes, but he says you're the doctor most highly recommended by Dr. Meacham, his neurosurgeon."
An impatient huff escaped Emma's lips. "The next time I see Larry at a medical convention, I'll have to remind him I don't take pediatric cases anymore."
Not since I lost Brian.
Sonja didn't budge and Emma found it difficult to hide her irritation. "Where's the tumor located?"
"It's on the hypothalamus."
Not good. The hypothalamus was a pea-size gland that told the pituitary gland what to do.
Emma didn't really need to ask. She'd seen it before in adult patients, time and time again, but this was an innocent child. God could be so unfair.
A rush of bitterness swept her. She'd grown comfortable with her anger and no longer tried to fight it.
Sonja nodded. "Yep, so they're starting chemo."
"What drugs will the child be on? How often do they need to be administered?"
"I'm not sure. He didn't say."
Emma tilted her head, longing to remove the too tight clip at the back of her neck and free her long hair.
"No, I don't want to take this patient."
I can't work with another child with cancer. I just can't.
"But it's so sad, Dr. Shields. The little girl's a babyonly six years old."
Emma's heart squeezed. Brian had been five.
She shook her head. "I'm very sorry, but administering drugs to a growing child is a lot different than dealing with adults."
"But she's been through so much already. She had her first surgery here in Reno, then they rushed her to U.C.S.F. for a biopsy. She's had several more surgeries since then, to drain cysts and install a VP shunt. Her father's agreed to begin a chemo protocol as soon as he can find an oncologist. You know there isn't a single pediatric oncologist in this city."
Yes, Emma knew. "But there are five other doctors in Reno that specialize in adult oncology. Refer Mr. Williams to one of them."
Sonja quirked her brows. "He's already tried and they said no. If you'll let me, I'll take full charge of overseeing her protocol."
Emma almost groaned. Certified to administer chemotherapy drugs, Sonja was one of the best nurses at her job. She was also too generous. A widow and grandmother of two, Sonja had been Brian's nurse when he had been ill, caring for him tenderly, reassuring Emma that everything would turn out all right.
It hadn't turned out all right and the night Brian died, Sonja had sobbed as bitterly as Emma.
Sonja smiled gently. "Losing ourselves in service to others is a great way to lift our own pain."
A shadow of remorse crowded Emma's mind. She served many patients every dayher bank account swelled with the results. But what good was money when she had no one to spend it on? What service had she done recently, just because someone needed her? Just because she could?
Nothing came to mind. Not since Brian. Because he blamed her for their son's death, Emma's husband had left her, too. Their marriage had been rocky long before Brian got sick, but the loss of their child had finished it. God had taken everything from her and then abandoned her.
No wonder I feel so lost and alone.
Her gaze shifted to a plaque on the wall, a wedding gift from her mother, three months before her death. Written by Adam Lindsay Gordon, it read, "Life is mostly froth and bubble, but one thing stands as stone. Kindness in another's trouble; courage in one's own."
Emma crossed her legs and clasped the armrests of her chair. Courage? Kindness? She was fresh out of both.
She peered out the window at the evening sky, a darkening blue with tinges of pink and orange as the sun tucked itself behind the western mountains. Hadn't she tried to do the right thing for Brian? And look what that had gotten her.
The death of her child, followed by a painful divorce.
"It would be so easy to help them," Sonja prodded, undeterred by Emma's frown.
"I said no."
The words dropped like stone. This wasn't her problem, nor her responsibility. God had put her through enough already.
Emma heard Sonja leave and she stared at the closed door. She couldn't go through that hurt again. It was that simple.
The next afternoon things weren't as simple as Emma hoped. Standing in the hallway of her medical office, she paused beside the closed door of an examination room to study the blood readings for her last patient of the day. Over the low hum of the busy office, she picked out Sonja's voice coming from the front reception area.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Williams, but it's like I told you this morning on the phoneDr. Shields has such a heavy patient load already, it wouldn't be fair to Angie."
Angie. Was that the child's name?
Emma paused, listening. She could hear the strain in Sonja's voice. Sonja didn't want to reject Mr. Williams, but Emma had given the nurse no choice.
"Have you tried Baker and Calloway's office?" Sonja suggested another oncologist.
"Yes, and they refused. My neurosurgeon said Dr. Shields is the best, and that's who I want for my daughter."
Mr. Williams was here? This fellow was not taking no for an answer.
As she stood in the doorway of her office, Emma saw Sonja sitting at the reception desk, looking up at a man who leaned against the counter. He had his back to Emma, holding an enormous envelope of files beneath one arm. No doubt the envelope contained various pathology reports and MRIs from his daughter's neurosurgeon. It looked like he had brought everything.
Dressed in navy-blue slacks and a light yellow pin-striped shirt, he was tall and slender, with shoulders wide as Texas. His short, slicked-back hair reminded her of the color of damp sand. He shifted his weight and shoved one hand into his pants' pocket. His stance tensed. What if he caused a scene?
"I need to see Dr. Shields. If I could just talk to him" Mr. Williams's voice sounded low, edged with desperation.
"Her," Sonja corrected in a kind tone. "Dr. Shields is a woman."
Mr. Williams lifted his hand in a gesture of frustration. "If I can just talk to her for two minutes, I won't take more time than that."
Like a coward, Emma ducked into her office and leaned against the wall. Her pulse throbbed, her hands clammy.
"Please. If I have to beg, I will."
His beseeching tone touched the deepest corners of Emma's heartwhat little she had left. She squeezed her eyes shut.
Opening her eyes, she swallowed and clenched her teeth. If she said yes this time, it would be harder to say no to the next parent who walked through her door. Brian's death had cured her of taking any more chances.
She stepped around the corner and pasted a professional look on her face. As she walked toward Mr. Williams, she extended her hand. "Mr. Williams?"
She froze. No, it couldn't be.
"Mark? Mark Williams?" Her voice sounded watery to her ears.
When he saw her, his eyes widened and his features softened with relief. "Emmy! Emmy Clemmons. Wow! How long has it been?"
She tried to pull her hand back, but he caught it and squeezed tight. The warmth of his fingers tingled up her arm.
"Uh, it's Shields now. Emma Shields." She emphasized her first name. It had been two years since anyone had called her Emmy.
He smiled but it didn't reach his eyes. "You must have gotten married. So, who's the lucky guy?"
She ignored the question. "Your daughter has a brain tumor?"
"Yeah, she needs an oncologist. Are you the oncolo-gist?" Amazement creased his brows and finally he released her hand, which she put behind her back.
He rubbed his angular jaw where a day's worth of stubble showed he hadn't shaved that morning. He was thinner than Emma remembered, but faint lines around his eyes showed increased maturity and fatigue. Regardless, he was still handsome as ever, with the power to break any girl's heart.
He looked good. Too good.
"Yes, that's me." Her voice sounded strangely robotic.
Oh, why did this man have to be her former high school boyfriend? They'd dated for about a year and then he'd dumped her for Denise Johnson, head cheerleader, a.k.a. The Doll. That's what all the girls called Denise behind her back because they were so jealous of her long blond hair and perfect good looks. They hated Denise because all the boys loved her.
Mark shifted the envelope of files beneath his arm and shook his head. "You know, I wasn't surprised when I heard you went to med school. You were such a bookworm in high school and always wanted to be a doctor. I knew you'd go far."
Yeah, when Brian died and David left, she'd almost gone off the deep end.
"Emmy, we need a good oncologist. We need you." Mark's voice sounded firm, insistent.
Emmy. She hated that name.
Overhearing the conversation, Emma's receptionist threw her a curious glance. As she directed another patient into the treatment room, one of the nurses gave Emma an inquiring look. The attention bothered Emma. Why couldn't her staff mind their own business?
"Let's go into my office where we can speak in private." Emma stepped back to lead the way.
"Okay, but" Mark shot Sonja a quick look.
"I'll bring her to you as soon as she's finished in the bathroom," Sonja said.
Oh, no. The little girl was here, too. This was not going to be easy.
Mark followed Emma into her office. In anticipation of the arrival of his daughter, she left the door ajar before she rounded the large desk and sat down. She was grateful to put some kind of barrier between her and Mark.
He sank into one of the three chairs facing Emma's desk and leaned forward, his fingers clasped, elbows resting on his knees. His gaze locked on her and he appeared confident and in control, the same old Mark she remembered from high school.
"You look great, Emma. How've you been these past fifteen years?"
She threw a fleeting look at him, then stared at the black stapler on her desk. "I've been fine."
"Do you and your husband have kids?"
She wasn't about to tell him about her sweet son or her nasty divorce. "What line of work are you in, Mark?"
"I'm a CPA. My firm serves mostly local contractors. It's busy and lucrative."
It probably suited him, she thought. As a kid he'd lived in a mobile home on the "other" side of the tracks. With his dad gone, his mother had worked hard to eek out a living for them. All he'd ever talked about was marrying a beautiful girl and making truckloads of cash so he could live a life of style and ease. It looked like he got his wish.
"So, how's The Doll?" she asked.
He sat back. "You mean, Denise?"
She tried to laugh, to lighten the moment, but it sounded more like a hoarse croak. Her hands were damp and she felt the sudden urge to run from the room and hide. "Yeah, remember? That's what we all used to call her."
He shook his head. "No, I never called her that."
Was her foot too big to fit inside her mouth?
"We're divorced." He spoke in a vacant tone but she caught a flicker of pain in his expressive eyes.
Inwardly, Emma sighed.As a doctor and a mother, she understood the strain a child's critical illness inflicted on a marriage. She had learned that lesson the hard way.
"I'm sorry." And she meant it, for the child's sake.
Anguish filled his eyes, then was gone. Though she had never liked Denise Johnson, she felt bad Mark's marriage had failed.
Emma shifted in her chair. She didn't want to feel bad for this man. She didn't want to care about him or the chaos in his life. She needed him out of her office and out of her life.
"Look, Mark, I'm not going to pretend. I can't take your daughter on as a patient. I've already got more than a full load and it wouldn't be fair to you or"
He shook his head before she finished speaking. "I can't accept that, Emma. Angie's been through so much. If you tell me no, I'll be forced to drive ten hours round-trip to San Francisco every week. My partners said they'd cover for me, but I don't think Angie can take the exhausting drive. She has little energy and no appetite. It'd be better if she gets her treatments here in Reno. Can't you take her as a patient, just for old time's sake?"
Angie. What a sweet name.
"No, I'm sorry, but I can't. My staff isn't prepared to deal with a child's growth and hormone issues."
His face fell, his eyes hollow with defeat. He no longer appeared in control. Instead he looked vulnerable and lost. "You're kidding, right?"